Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tuesday Marks Mid-Winter

On Sunday morning, Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil declared there would be six more weeks of Winter. Groundhog Day is considered the traditional mid-point in the Winter season. However, with our modern calendar, the actual mid-point of Winter occurs at 12:04 a.m. EST Tuesday.
(Image Source: Associated Press)

By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

The moment of posting of this blog post, 12:04 a.m. EST (5:04 Coordinated Universal Time) on Tuesday Morning, 2014 February 4, marks the actual mid-point in the season of Winter in Earth's Northern Hemisphere. The day of this point in time is known by the term, Cross-Quarter Day (XQ). Having no formal astronomical definition, "cross-quarter" here is defined as the moment in time precisely half-way between an adjacent equinox and solstice or adjacent solstice and equinox.

In this case, the moment in time is precisely half-way between the Winter Solstice (observed on 2013 December 21) and the Vernal Equinox (which will be observed on 2014 March 20).

Ancient peoples did know the concept of a "cross-quarter," even though they did not use that particular term.They used festivals to celebrate the mid-point of a season, or what some saw as the beginning of a new season.

In Gaelic Ireland, Imbolc, also known by the name Imbolg and also common in Scotland and the Isle of Man, was considered the beginning of Spring and celebrated on February 1. The ancient societies were all agrarian-based, hence agriculture was important to their survival. They used the Imbolc festival to prepare their people for the beginning of the growing season. Once Ireland was Christianized, the pagan feast day Imbolc became the Christian St. Brighid's Day (which included the Christianization of the pagan fertility goddess Brighid).

Imbolc is immediately followed by Candlemas on February 2, among the most ancient feasts of the Christian Church. This feast is timed forty days after Christmas Day, the day when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus into the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete Mary's ritual purification after childbirth and to perform the redemption of the first born son according to the Law of Moses, as described in the Gospel of St. Luke. For those who celebrate Orthodox Christmas on January 6, Candlemas falls on February 14.

Imbolc was also the time of weather divination, as weather was crucial to the success of the coming crop. By watching to see if badgers, bears, wolves, or snakes came out from their Winter dens, they thought that this animal behavior may give them a clue as to the future weather. If these animals feel safe staying out of their Winter dens, then it was figured that Winter was ending.

It was believed that the Cailleach, a divine hag of Irish and Scottish mythology, would make the day of Imbolc bright and sunny (so it is easy for her to gather lots of firewood) if she wished to make the Winter last a while longer. However, if bad weather falls on the day of Imbolc, it means Cailleach is asleep and no additional firewood is needed; Winter is just about complete for the year.

This led to the German custom of Groundhog Day, which was brought to America with the German immigrants ("Pennsylvania Dutch"), particularly to central and southeastern Pennsylvania. According to the custom, should a groundhog see its shadow on February 2, then the bright sunshine scares the animal into returning to its burrow for six more weeks of Winter weather. However, should the groundhog not see its shadow on that day, the cloudy weather leads the criter to believe the weather has moderated, and shelter is no longer necessary.

The greatest celebration of Groundhog Day, today, is in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, located about 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. As many as 40,000 people have been known to come on February 2 to see if Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow, often including many students from the relatively close main campus of the Pennsylvania State University.

Along with Halloween (Oct. 31, Nov. 1, 2) and May Day (May 1), Groundhog Day is the best known of the cross-quarter days. Halloween ("All Hallows Eve") is actually the eve of All-Saints Day followed by All-Souls Day, while in modern times May Day has been observed as an International Labor Day in many countries around the world. The least known cross-quarter day, known as Lammas Day and also as Lughnasadh Day, falls on August 1.

As previously mentioned, some ancient societies considered February 1 as the beginning of Spring, when the amount of time of daylight becomes significant, compared to the Winter Solstice. While others insisted that Spring does not start until the Vernal Equinox, when the hours of daylight equal, and then begin to exceed, the amount of darkness of the day.

Some explain Groundhog Day as a way to accommodate the two rival calendrical systems. Some years Spring begins at Imbolc (when the groundhog does not see his shadow), while other years (when the groundhog does see his shadow) Spring does not begin until the Vernal Equinox!

Special Thanks: Eric G. Canali, former Floor Manager of Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science and Founder of the South Hills Backyard Astronomers amateur astronomy club.

Source: Glenn A. Walsh, Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.

More on Cross-Quarter Days:
Also see Quarter Days (roughly coinciding with Equinoxes and Solstices):

More on Imbolc, Imbolg, St. Brighid's Day: Link >>> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imbolg

More on Candlemas: Link >>> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candlemas

Related Blog Posts ---

Astronomical Calendar: 2014 February  (2014 Feb. 1):

Link >>> http://spacewatchtower.blogspot.com/2014/02/astronomical-calendar-2014-february.html

Winter Begins Sat.; Ursid Meteor Shower Peaks Sun. w/ Web-Cast (2013 Dec. 21):

Link >>> http://spacewatchtower.blogspot.com/2013/12/winter-begins-sat-ursid-meteor-shower.html

Astronomical Mid-Point of Summer (2013 July 30):

Link >>> http://spacewatchtower.blogspot.com/2013/07/astronomical-mid-point-of-summer.html


2014: 75th Year of Pittsburgh's Buhl Planetarium Historic Zeiss II Planetarium Projector at Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science.

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Glenn A. Walsh, Project Director,
Friends of the Zeiss < http://buhlplanetarium.tripod.com/fotz/ >
Electronic Mail - < gawalsh@planetarium.cc >
About the SpaceWatchtower Editor / Author: < http://buhlplanetarium2.tripod.com/weblog/spacewatchtower/gaw/ >
SpaceWatchtower Blog: < http://spacewatchtower.blogspot.com/ >
Also see: South Hills Backyard Astronomers Blog: < http://shbastronomers.blogspot.com/ >
Barnestormin: Writing, Essays, Pgh. News, & More: < http://www.barnestormin.blogspot.com/ >
< http://buhlplanetarium.tripod.com/#news >
Twitter: < https://twitter.com/spacewatchtower >
Facebook: < http://www.facebook.com/pages/SpaceWatchtower/238017839577841?sk=wall >
Author of History Web Sites on the Internet --
* Buhl Planetarium, Pittsburgh:
  < http://www.planetarium.cc >
* Adler Planetarium, Chicago:
  < http://adlerplanetarium.tripod.com >
* Astronomer, Educator, Optician John A. Brashear:
  < http://johnbrashear.tripod.com >
* Andrew Carnegie & Carnegie Libraries:
  < http://www.andrewcarnegie.cc >
* Civil War Museum of Andrew Carnegie Free Library:
  < http://garespypost.tripod.com >
* Duquesne Incline cable-car railway, Pittsburgh:
  < http://inclinedplane.tripod.com >
* Public Transit:
  < http://andrewcarnegie2.tripod.com/transit >

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